The Romance of the Past? Nineteenth-Century Medievalism and the Tournament
By Natalie Anderson
The nineteenth century saw a rebirth of fascination with the Middle Ages. Yet, for many, it was an obsession that was more interested in romanticising the past than in pursuing historical accuracy. From the Pre-Raphaelites to Walter Scott, these visions of the Middle Ages focused on a colourful, opulent world where Arthurian legend blended with medieval reality. And a perfect medium for the expression of this nineteenth-century medievalism was the tournament. Today, this interest often takes the form of a serious effort to replicate the skill and effort involved in the joust. In 1839, it was an excuse for one Scottish earl to show off his power and prestige in an act of pure indulgence.
The 13th Earl of Eglinton, Archibald Montgomerie (1812-1861), was a lover of the Gothic Revival movement sweeping Europe at the time. He was also a Conservative politician who was not pleased with the trimming down of the recent coronation of Queen Victoria by the rival Whig government. In an effort to restore some of the spectacle and ceremony he believed was the historical right of the nation, Eglinton decided he would host a medieval tournament at his family home in the summer of 1839.
The earl threw himself into preparing for what he envisioned to be a grand event harking back to the glories of Britain’s medieval past while celebrating its modern nobility. He would open his grounds to the public – as long as they came appropriately dressed in medieval garb. Eglinton got more than he bargained for, though, when upwards of 100,000 people showed up. This was far more than anticipated and than local accommodation could provide for. It was just the first in a long list of debacles that unfolded during the course of the ‘tournament’.
The starting date was to be August 29th. From the beginning, however, the festivities were plagued by torrential downpours. The stands for spectators and tents for banqueting were all soaked and rendered unusable. The ‘knights’ who took part all competed under pseudonyms, in true Arthurian style. Famous participants such as Henry, Marquess of Waterford, and John, Viscount Alford, became ‘the Knight of the Dragon’ and ‘the Knight of the Black Lion’. Unlike their medieval predecessors, however, these men were not experienced in the knightly profession. They were not used to parading in armour on horseback, and the planned elaborate processions were soon in disarray. Some men had borrowed armour from the collections in the Tower of London, only to be surprised that the average nineteenth-century physique did not fit into the carefully tailored medieval plate armour. When it came to the jousting itself, Eglinton was the only one who managed to get a clean strike on his opponent’s shield (in the end, he was declared the winner of the tournament); clearly, these men did not fit as naturally into the medieval world of their imaginations as they would have liked.
The Eglinton Tournament may have been a practical failure, but it was a marketing success. Mass produced memorabilia in the form of artwork and tableware presented images of the tournament that never took place in real life: knight competing in glorious sunshine and parading in a neat and orderly manner. Much like the medieval past he wished to celebrate but that also had little connection to reality, these commemorative pieces presented a romanticised image of what Eglinton wished had been.
Follow Natalie on Twitter: @DrMcAnderson